In the morning Gita came with another tray of food and a fresh robe. She replaced the old tray on the low table with the new one and bade Elizabeth don the new robe. Then she retreated with the old tray and robe.
Annoyed that she was apparently to be in possession of only one item of clothing at a time, and a flimsy one at that, Elizabeth felt rather grumpy as she sat on a cushion next to the table. Her mood took a turn when, upon choosing among the covered bowls, she noticed they were sitting atop a rectangle of tobacco brown leather. She picked the object up and discovered it to be a slim volume. She opened to the title page and read with astonishment A Brief History of Persia by Sir William Jones.
She had heard of the author, of course, from Charles for whom Sir William Jones, who had died some sixty years earlier, was something of a hero. Jones had attended Harrow, like Charles, and was a school legend for his mastery of the many languages of India and the renown he had earned as a judge in his adopted land. Charles had even spoken eagerly of undertaking a trip to the other side of India in order to pay his respects at Jones’s grave in Calcutta. And now a book of his appears on her morning tray? What was she to make of it?
She was to read it, of course. So she ate and read while the back of her mind swirled in confusion.
Finally the confusion burst forth to flood all thought, and she jumped up. She looked at the book as if it were a tame palace mongoose suddenly become feral and wanting to bite her. So she flicked it on the bed and abruptly left the room. She took several turns in the garden, trying to master her bubbling emotions, then returned to her room to gaze out the window.
The familiar act of reading had momentarily lulled her into a sense of normalcy so vivid it finally heightened the strangeness of her present circumstances. Taking stock, she could acknowledge she was likely better off than she had been the day before, since she didn’t know how long her ruse in the women’s quarters could last. At the same time she faced new perils – and had now lost access to the last of her valuables.
Still, she did not think her life was in immediate danger. The relative luxury of the feeling opened her to wonder how she had survived the early weeks of dust caking her eyelids and coating the roof of her mouth as she trudged the elephant trails, and then, more recently the task of both ingratiating and abasing herself in the serail ‘harem.’ Her thoughts on the matter had long since fractured in the piercing terrors of every event. The best she could do was to gingerly piece together the shards of the Hindustani lessons Charles had insisted she take before leaving London with the off-hand wisdom of the fifteen-year-old urchin she had sponsored and who had once told her, “Cor, Miss, in a tight corner, I smears me face with dirt, puts on rags and acts like a crazy owd besom as I walks down the street. Won’t nobody touch me.” Add to that her late father’s skill as a veterinarian and the magic tricks Harry had delighted to teach her. Here her efforts at making sense of her life ground to a halt, lost as she suddenly was in the grievous fear she might never correspond with her younger brother and mother again, let alone see them.
She winced from thinking of Charles, whom she had not yet had a chance to mourn.
Even if she had wanted to be alone with her thoughts, she was not to have the opportunity. Gita returned to take her tray and said, as she had before, “Chup,” accompanied by a gesture to follow. Elizabeth naturally assumed the word meant ‘follow me’ but would later learn it meant ‘be silent.’
Although her mental plan of the palace was far from complete, she sensed they were heading to the room where she had spent the afternoon before. It was still only mid-morning, so the closer she thought they came to the prince’s office chamber her heart sank, fearing she would have to spend the whole day naked before him.
Her fear was misplaced.
They arrived at the antechamber. Instead of being led into the main chamber, Gita gestured for her to sit on a rug in the corner. Gita chose for herself a low stool. And then they waited.
She kept her mind carefully blank, ready for whatever was to come her way this day. Eventually the heat and the inactivity overcame her and she dozed, only to be roused when a page came with bowls of dates and dried apricots, plates of honey cakes and pots of jasmine tea. She ate her fill, having once again found her appetite after starving during the long days she had kept to the back roads before arriving at the town of Garkata at the foot of the Red Palace.
Several long hours passed before she recognized the voice of the prince calling to Gita. With a nod, Gita gestured toward the prince’s chamber. Steeling herself Elizabeth rose and entered the room to find the prince’s back to her, speaking to someone of the other side of the marble partition shimmering like a wave of frozen lace. This was the first full view she had of Badar Ali, and although it was only from the back, she could see he was tall and well built. Since he was wearing no turban, she saw as well that his thick dark haired was shorter than she might have expected, curling as it did around the collar of his tunic of dove grey silk. Around his trim waist was wrapped a broad kamarband of slate grey.
Gita removed her robe, and she sat down on the rug placed a good five feet from the desk, arranging her limbs for maximum modesty. It hardly mattered. When the prince finished his conversation and turned toward his desk, his eyes were on the documents he was holding as he shuffled through them. He took his seat and got to work.
Elizabeth trained her gaze in a far corner, struggling as she did the day before with exposure and humiliation. The experience was less searing this second time around but equally puzzling. Simmering now in the stew of her outrage and helplessness was the strong spice of vexation. She clung to the vexation as she wondered for the thousandth time in the past day how the prince had learned of her presence in the women’s quarters. Had it been luck on his part and misfortune on hers that he plucked from the bevy a blue-eyed woman who turned out to have white skin and blonde hair? Or had she, indeed, seen a stir of satisfaction in the depths of his eyes when he had asked her to look up at him and had seen what he had expected? She tried now to recall the color of his eyes but her apprehension at the time had been too great to register anything beyond her own troubled emotions.
Minutes trickled past and dribbled into hours. She watched the crosshatched oblong of light cast from the latticed window at the prince’s back inch across the marble floor. She attempted to keep her emotions self-contained but must have lost her concentration, because at one point, upon shifting positions, she sighed deeply. At that moment she felt a bolt of attention from the prince, as if he registered her sigh and then her presence for the first time. She felt his awareness fully upon her, even if his eyes were not.
Not much later he rose and left the room with two snaps of his fingers for Gita to escort Elizabeth away.
The next five days unfolded exactly as had the previous two. Elizabeth knew a week had elapsed, because she had managed to snatch a piece of old carbon from a unlit brazier they passed going to and from the prince’s office, and she began to mark the days on the back flyleaf of A Brief History of Persia.
This afternoon the prince sat once again as judge over the cases that came his way from the other side of the frozen lace. This time she listened. Although she could not understand but a fraction of what was said, she did come to distinguish among the cases the prince adjudicated in Hindustani and those in Persian. She knew before arriving in India that the Persian Mughals had once ruled this patch of the earth before the East India Company had wrested control. She now knew from the work of Sir William Jones that, among other things, the state of Rajgurat had gained its independence and had reverted to Hindustani rule. Where it stood with respect to whatever was happening in India now – and she was sure something was afoot because her best instincts had told her to keep out of sight as she had made her way to Garkata – she had no knowledge whatsoever. This ignorance compounded her puzzlement over her treatment by the prince.
The very next day, when she arrived in the prince’s chamber, she was greeted by a haphazard stack of books teetering next to her rug. Her instinct was to look in question at the prince but she successfully quelled the impulse. She chose a book from the midst of the pile and saw it was a Hindustani grammar. In English. She had made a bit more progress with the language because in the past few evenings a serving girl by the name of Lila had been sent to sit with her and to embroider with her. Elizabeth was not much of a needlewoman but the human contact and activity had been welcome. Also welcome was the addition of this grammar, which simultaneously triggered the fear she might be staying a long time in the Laal Mahal and, thus, needed to learn the language.
Another book was in Persian, if she was any judge of the Arabic script. Since she knew nothing of either the script or the language, she guessed it had been given to her to admire the beautiful color plates depicting various gardens. Other books catalogued Indian dress and food. One held glorious representations of the Hindu deities, from the elephant god Genesha to the large-breasted Parvati and her consort Shiva, pages rife with images of monkeys and blue-skinned warriors and goddesses laden with gold. She leafed through the books happily, grateful for the relief of the tedium of sitting on the rug, doing nothing.
It was only then she realized her outrage and humiliation had vanished along with her clothing. Instead, her dislike of the empty hours had made her petulant and dissatisfied. Once again she had an impulse to look up at the prince but quashed it. She also successfully stifled a sigh.
Then came the day, another two weeks later, when she found the novelty of a low table inlaid with ivory next to her rug. Atop it lay a single book along with a plate of sweets. She assumed her position and reached for the book, opening it at random. She was in sufficient control of herself in ‘her glorious nakedness,’ as she phrased it, not to gasp or otherwise betray any emotion when her gaze fell on an explicit picture of a couple intertwined and in the throes of sexual ecstasy. She flipped back to the equally scandalously decorated frontispiece and title page. She had learned enough of the curlicues of the Hindustani alphabet to read Kama ‘desire’ Sutra ‘thread’.
She considered putting the book down, but her curiosity got the better of her. So she affected the gestures – suspecting the prince was paying unassuming attention to her reaction – of a casual browse through the fascinating images. She paused to read what she could of the explanations, but her vocabulary had not enlarged enough to fully understand them. Then she returned the book to the table and closed her eyes.
Her imagination burned with what she had just seen, flesh connected in ways she had never imagined, lovers lying together in the sunlight and the moonlight, feeding one another juicy fruit, stroking one another’s arms and legs with flower petals and silk scarves, stroking more intimate places with hands and tongues, joining with abandon. She could not prevent herself from casting back on her physical relations with Charles – and to wonder, in some disappointment, about them.
She cracked her eyelashes and saw the prince with his dark head bent over his work. Motes of gold danced in the honeycombed light behind him. The scent of sandalwood of the low table mixed with the honey from her plate of sweets and joined the wafts of jasmine from the gardens able to float on the lightest of breezes. Her skin felt dewy. She felt a first frightful, delightful stab of desire. She opened her eyes fully, chose a sticky cake and popped it into her mouth.
As clearly as if she had seen lime lines drawn to outline a tennis court, she understood the prince was playing a game with her. On her side of the net sprang the fragile bud of a transgressive idea to play along with him. It would take a little more time to flower.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen